August 3, 2004
WASHINGTON - U.S. officials say the detailed surveillance photos and documents that prompted higher terror warnings dated from as far back as 2000 and 2001 - some of it well before the Sept. 11 attacks - and it's unclear whether the individuals who amassed the information are still in the country or plotting.
Nevertheless, top Bush administration officials said Tuesday that some of the surveillance was apparently updated as recently as January of this year. And they denied any allegations that the public release of the information now, and the raising of the terror alert, were politically motivated. They said the information was released now because it was just uncovered in Pakistan.
The surveillance actions taken by the plotters were "originally done between 2000 and 2001, but were updated - some were updated - as recently as January of this year," Fran Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show.
"And from what we know of al-Qaida's method ... they do them years in advance and then update them before they actually launch the attack," she said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that once federal officials get such information, "they do have a responsibility not only to evaluate it, but to get it out."
But some Democrats have raised concerns that the timing of the release of the information had more to do with politics than with fears that terrorists were about to strike.
Townsend and other officials noted that the information - dating back to 2000 and 2001 - was just recently discovered in Pakistan. "We've only gotten the intelligence, I would say, in the last 72 hours," she said Tuesday.
U.S. officials have said that the trove of hundreds of photos, sketches and written documents that led to Sunday's warning about new risks of terror attacks came largely from a Pakistani computer engineer, Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, also known as Abu Talha, who was captured in mid-July in Pakistan.
Officials are now following investigative leads, as they try to learn more about possible plots against the apparent targets: The Citigroup Center building and the New York Stock Exchange in New York, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington and Prudential Financial Inc.'s headquarters in Newark, N.J.
At a news conference Monday, Townsend denied that political considerations affected the timing of the intelligence disclosures, which came the week after Democrats nominated John Kerry as their presidential candidate. "It had nothing to do with the Democratic National Convention," she said.
On Monday, a Pakistani intelligence official said Khan, a computer and communications expert, had sent messages to suspected al-Qaida members using code words - a practice typical of the international jihadist organization that bedeviled U.S. efforts to unravel the Sept. 11, 2001, plot. But the Pakistani official refused to say if Khan was part of al-Qaida.
Khan's information has been merged with other pieces of intelligence, including information gleaned after Pakistan's arrest last month of a senior al-Qaida operative named Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.
E-mails that included plans for new attacks in Great Britain and the United States were found on the computer of the captured Ghailani, Pakistan's information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said Monday.
But it was Khan and the information found after his arrest that was mostly behind the decision to raise the government's terror alert for financial-services buildings in New York, Washington and northern New Jersey - to orange, or high alert.
The FBI is analyzing the information about the surveillance of these five buildings, obtained after Khan's capture, to try to determine when it may have occurred, so that investigators can review building logs or videos during that same period, said one senior law enforcement official, speaking only on condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
Investigators hope that logs or video might help identify some of the individuals involved, which would help agents understand the breadth of the terror plot.
The FBI is also trying to compare reports about the surveillance with previous intelligence reports that might have been considered innocuous or unconfirmed months ago, but might take on important new meaning in light of the latest information.
Officials don't yet know precisely when the detailed surveillance work took place.
A counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said authorities believe the surveillance was going on both before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, based on clues within the documents, including descriptions of security indicative of practices used before the suicide hijackings.